In Mechanics of a Gaze, Branka Petrovic strips the paintings of Gustav Klimt—layer by layer—until only the male gaze is left. Petrovic’s interpretation of the man and his work is not flattering. The poems are irreverent, provocative, skillful and mature.
The structure of the book leads us from insightful—although sometimes devastating profiles—and ekphrastic poems to historical notes and interpretations by others. In the first section (“His Women”), we meet a selection of the women who were model, muse and sexual object. The poems unmask the erotic within Klimt’s studio, sometimes blatantly and sometimes more suggestively.
Whatever’s semi about this nude, it’s not
the way we enter the sketch,
her swift dialogue of the illicit.
Slipped between the poems are excerpts from postcards sent by Klimt to Emilie Flӧge over their long relationship. They continue throughout, presaging the final section and providing an insight into the Klimt-Flӧge relationship and his character.
Next, the focus is on Emilie Flӧge, the woman who was Klimt’s friend, sometimes lover, and lifelong companion. In a poem called “Gustav & Emilie, Petrovic creates a scene (perhaps from a photo taken at her family cottage at Lake Attersee) but then imagines:
If he were to paint you right now,
the vertical lines of your dress
would leak jonquil, mutate
into a metallic-gold,
backdrop; osmanthus sprouting
from your hands….
a brooding saint.
Petrovic at once captures the essence of Klimt’s art and sexual fecundity as evidenced in “osmanthus.” In another poem, she does this with “Calder,” alluding to movement. Petrovic demonstrates a close reading of both the paintings/drawings and the characters that inhabit (and those who created) them. And in five words defines Flӧge and the relationship.
The third section places the gaze on Adele Bloch-Bauer. (You may recall the 2006 movie “The Woman in Gold,” starring Helen Mirren, which takes the point-of-view of Maria Altmann who reclaims the painting of her aunt from the Austrian establishment.) In one poem, Petrovic expresses the essence of Adele and Klimt as “a Wittgenstein riddle.”
In the fourth section, “Mankind Drifting,” the perspective broadens to include Vienna and the Secessionists’ art (late 19th through early 20th centuries). The Secessionists led the way from traditional-to-modern art in Vienna. The movement turned conservative values on their head, and Gustav Klimt was in the vanguard. In this section, Petrovic switches focus from Klimt’s portraits to his controversial work for the University of Vienna’s ceilings: Philosophy; Medicine; and Jurisprudence. It is also here that Petrovic returns to Egon Shiele, provocative protégé (“Disabled Sex” appears in the first section).
The final part, “Catalogue Raisonné,” is where we come to found poems and collages, information gleaned from sources such as Wikipedia and the Internet to reviews and the press from The New York Times to The Montreal Gazette. Petrovic’s innovative structuring of the collection leads readers from her subject—the sexualized gaze—of artist and model to the political subject of Nazi looting. With this innovation, Petrovic pushes the convention of most poetry collections.
Branka Petrovic’s debut collection reinvigorates Gustav Klimt and Secessionists’ art. You will never look at the stale gold and mosaic looking greeting cards of Klimt the same. I find Mechanics of a Gaze as invigorating as was the poetry of Sylvia Plath in the 1960s. My guess is that we’ll be hearing more from Branka Petrovic.
Tips for Writers
- Relevancy: read the poems as a whole, thinking about their subject and relevancy (see Good News for Poets and Readers). As a poet, what role does relevancy to your readers play in your writing? Is relevancy important?
- Read each poem for its ekphrastic insight, asking yourself if Petrovic captures the essence of the art. Does the poem work as a poem?
- In 2017, I reviewed The Painted Kiss by Elizabeth Hickey. Like “Peter Schjeldahl on Gustav Klimt Part 1” and “…Part II” in Mechanics of a Gaze, I have changed my mind somewhat. In that review, I ignored sexual politics and the inherent power of the “gaze.” But after reading The Mechanics of a Gaze, and having witnessed the revelations of the last couple of years, I’ve reread the more sympathetic Kiss. It is Hickey’s fictionalized story of Klimt, written entirely from the point-of-view of Emilie Flӧge. Hickey seeks to get under the skin and into the heart of a woman of the last century. Yet it is all there: the sexualized gaze and acts. Bring your consciousness to Petrovic’s collection. Is Mechanics of a Gaze a feminist collection? If so, does “the message” inform or detract from the work as art?
- The Secessionists rejected the orthodox conventions of late 19th-early 20th century Vienna. Their art was rejected by traditional art galleries, so they established their own, a movement toward modernity. Should it be judged/reinterpreted against today’s standards or accepted within its place in history?
Available through your local bookstore or online: Mechanics of a Gaze
Also, please see blog 14 The Painted Kiss (2005): The Painted Kiss